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Director creates bond where men face frailties

WASHINGTON — WASHINGTON - Nine days before Seabiscuit's national debut, filmmaker Gary Ross, who previously wrote the hit comedies Big and Dave and wrote and directed the subversive fantasy Pleasantville, sat in a D.C. cafe and said: "Sometimes we give ourselves a little too much credit for the way things are rendered. Sometimes what gives our work its impact are the facts and power of the story." (The movie opens across the country Friday and receives its Maryland premiere tonight at the Senator, in a sold-out benefit for the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation and the Maryland Horse Industry Foundation.)

Ross recalls reading Laura Hillenbrand's profile of the racehorse in American Heritage four years before the book was published - "I had the experience America had before other Americans had it" - and retelling it to a friend, Dee Dee Myers, while they were watching a baseball game. "Dee Dee got choked up at Dodger Stadium just hearing the story."

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Ross is being characteristically modest. He's the rare mainstream Hollywood moviemaker who knows why a story is potent and has the skill (and tenacity) to ignite that potency on-screen. Ross optioned Hillenbrand's Seabiscuit saga when it was a magazine story and began a conversation with the author that has lasted a half-dozen years. When she saw the film, she told him it would be hard for her to think of her characters now without seeing his actors: "It's a nice validation of my choices that she sees Chris Cooper when she thinks of Tom Smith. There is no greater compliment."

Although Ross would never describe himself as an "auteur," when he says that Seabiscuit "is about the juxtaposition of an idealized life and the reality of life," he could also be describing the enchanting, coruscating Pleasantville, in which a pair of late-1990s teens find themselves trapped in the black and white purity of a 1950s sitcom. A second-generation screenwriter, Ross has first-hand knowledge of both the pristine illusions of the 1950s and the rebellious images that bubbled up from the collective id: His father, Arthur Ross, wrote Creature from the Black Lagoon, among other things.

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Although Ross would never say he "took over" Seabiscuit's story, it's clear that it took over him. As the director of Seabiscuit he had to be owner, trainer and jockey to his charges - engaging in open and animated discussions with Jeff Bridges as Howard, maintaining a respectful distance with Cooper as Smith, and bringing along Tobey Maguire (a Pleasantville veteran) as Pollard. All the while Maguire was studying with his own acting coach, Larry Moss (a disciple of Ross' acting mentor, Stella Adler), and creating his own character chart full of "simple haikus," like "The world is a kinder place; I feel scared, but optimistic."

Nursing a cup of coffee a week before the film's public premieres, Ross felt optimistic, too, as he answered questions.

If throngs show up at Seabiscuit to see an underdog fable, they may find themselves going back because it's more than Rocky on hooves.

It's about the juxtaposition of an idealized life and the reality of life, as well as the Depression, this racehorse and these men. The reality is - we're not War Admiral, we're Seabiscuit. We're flawed, we're broken, we're a little bit hobbled. We've got an eggbeater gait. We underestimate ourselves, and other people underestimate us. We're hurting. We don't always win. We dream about perfection, and then we come up on hard times. All those things are true for us and for the characters. An American movie will usually present just an idealized view. It's only about the open range. It's only about the entrepreneur who becomes a formidable titan or the jockey who proves to be invincible. But our jockey, Red Pollard, is blind in one eye. Our trainer, Tom Smith, has to ride a boxcar because his frontier has closed and he can't find a horse. Our titan, Charles Howard, is mired in grief.

When they come to constitute a family, it's an imperfect family. The point of the movie, and what's emotional about it, is that you must enjoin the struggle, embrace your frailties and look yourself in the eye.

Even if audiences take home a simpler tale of triumph over adversity, the way you frame it, that's still quite a lot - a refutation of F. Scott Fitzgerald's "There are no second acts in American lives."

One reason you don't see Red Pollard crossing the finish line at the end is that the story depicts a continuous struggle against limitations - that's what's stirring. I think Laura Hillenbrand hooked up with that when she wrote it, because her struggle [with chronic fatigue syndrome] was so intense.

What keeps it from sentimentality is that these men partner up out of their own particular senses of pride.

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They're filled with certain kinds of male pride; they are not sentimental characters. Tom Smith's a taciturn cowboy. Red Pollard would never grovel. The scene where Pollard asks for money from Howard is so poignant because he's hidden his wounds in a self-protective shell; he doesn't want to request help. For him to ask for $10 for a trip to the dentist is an amazing moment of vulnerability - a watershed. For Howard to then give him a 20 instead of a 10 - this is code between men. They're 1930s men, tempered by hard times. They don't gush.

In the Depression many men experienced a sense of emasculation. They felt, "I can't provide for my family. I'm not the man I was. I can't earn a living." These guys are striving to restore themselves as best they can.

You don't over-explain them or their quest.

I have to be honest: I've learned how to shut up over the years. Whereas before I would gnash over every bit of interpretation, with Jeff Bridges I would just say, "You're the richest man in the world," and I would see him plant his legs on the ground and puff his chest out and he'd [exude] a calm solidity that he didn't have to work too hard for.

Chris Cooper is much more independent. It was like, "You don't have to help me create the character. There's such a thing as 'an actor's secret.' I'm going to go do my homework. I'm going to bring you Tom Smith; tell me what you think of Tom Smith."

The 'family' of Howard, Smith and Pollard, with Howard's wife Marcela [Elizabeth Banks] as the resident female, has the emotionalism of a '30s film like Test Pilot, which is now shown in gay festivals because contemporary audiences are more comfortable explaining strong male friendships with homosexuality!

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We're afraid of real emotion between men in today's movies; it's OK only as the stuff of banter. We don't know the strife that created deep male bonds in the 1930s and 1940s. You talk to any World War II veteran about his buddy in the foxhole and he'll be more forthcoming about his feelings.

Were you cautious about using period stills? That material poses a risk because it's so inherently powerful.

At times I wanted to yank you away from the moviemaking experience. I can't remind you constantly that this story happened; what I can do is integrate a technique that tells you OK, this is true. So when you're watching the stills and hearing about the stock market crash or the birth of the libertine border-towns in Mexico, the narrator, David McCullough, is letting you in on moments of history. When suddenly he says, "The first time he saw Seabiscuit, the colt was walking through the fog at 5 in the morning," it puts you inside history with a directness I couldn't build any other way.

Was your biggest gamble cutting to the photos of people listening to the radio at the start of the big match race with War Admiral at Pimlico?

Obviously it is a bold choice; obviously people react for and against it. But it does two things. You feel what everybody felt who was watching or listening to the match race; it brings that viscerally alive to you. But it also makes you lean forward. It makes you reach for the race - it makes you hunger for it. We are used to being so passive in a movie theater - so much is delivered to us - that if I can get you to lean forward and reach for it, you're going to be so much more engaged in the second half of that race than in any starting-gate I can show you when you've already seen 10 of them.

At the same time, your technique seems rooted in classical American moviemaking.

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There's probably a lot of David Lean in the patient establishment of the characters and their relationships. In the intercutting structure, I sometimes thought about Traffic or Godfather II, movies that successfully cut between stories. And I love letting acting play out in front of you, the way Orson Welles does in Touch of Evil and other films. In a modern movie, people aren't used to seeing five or six lines play without the director making a cut, and that in itself can become thrilling.

Even though Seabiscuit is incredibly kinetic, it has to breathe, and it has to have quiet stretches for the rest of it to move. Yeah, you're throwing guys off horses, but it's important to find pauses and to savor their stillness. I love composing wide images that let the camera be motionless - that let your eyes wander within a frame and let you get lost inside of it. It's the magic of movies and not TV.


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